One of my favorite Frisian oddities is Fierljeppen. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it involves a pole, a body of water (usually in the form of a canal) and a person. It is at the same time a manifestation of cultural heritage firmly anchored to the landscape and a sport both very entertaining and peculiar. Several years ago, I was at a Fierljeppen tournament in Friesland. The contestants had to cross an extremely wide canal, and I shall never quite forget the sight of the jump, the crawl to the top of the pole and ultimately the seconds spend waiting for the combined forces of gravity and propulsion to do their work, or, if they did not, the giant splash. A very amusing spectator sport. (If you have never witnessed this, please google Fierljeppen – you are in for a treat!)
I also remember when I was about 9 or 10, and we were visiting relatives in Friesland. I was sent out to play with a cousin. His parents had instructed him to show me around and mine had instructed me to follow him, so off we went. Since we were on a Frisian farm, this primarily meant getting a closer look at the village and the surrounding fields. My guide equipped med with a “polsstok”, and started out across the fields. Soon we happened upon the first canal. With surprising swiftness, he suddenly flew over the canal. He pointed to my pole urging me to follow, which I did, slowly and clumsily. My guide waded through the fields, and the canals we traversed became wider and wider. Not liking to back down, I did my best to keep up, and I remember discovering very late that he was, in fact, messing with me. This in turn made me even less eager to back down, but I was really out of my league. Suffice it to say, the last thing I remember of the excursion is me stomping back across the fields in a temper with rather wet socks.
On our recent visit to Friesland, I revisited my memories and the farm in question. My father’s cousin, Sake Castelein, who has had a lifetime of practice leaping, agreed to demonstrate the intricate techniques of Fierljeppen. It was a beautiful day and the Frisian landscape looked its absolute best. Sake demonstrated the leap several times, and I was struck by the way he glided gracefully through the air and onto the opposite bank. His body knew exactly what to do, and I suspect he could do it in his sleep without getting his feet wet.
On such a lovely day, it would of course be a shame to miss the opportunity to fly across a canal, and I did manage it without wet socks this time, but alas, without the dexterity and grace of Sake, as is evident from the photo below.
Of course, Fierljeppen is not merely an amusing sport; every self-respecting Frisian farmer owns a polsstok, since Fierljeppen has been used as a means of transportation from field to field. Like veins, the canals course through the Frisian landscape, and since the polsstok is easy to carry, it also presents the simplest way of getting about. Besides, Sake told us, a special custom in Friesland used to be the gathering of lapwing eggs in the grasslands, and here the polsstok also came in handy.
After a good many leaps, we talked Sake into charging the larger canal. He executed the leap faultlessly again, but unfortunately, this time his glasses did not survive the trip. However, I could not help thinking that if I am as agile and graceful at the age of 70, I shall be very pleased indeed.
See for yourselves: